The Washington Legislature should ensure the higher education budget does not suffer as lawmakers meet a mandate to fully fund public K-12 education.
Since 2008, the recession and state budget deficits have squeezed higher education institutions, students and their families, who are paying higher tuition.
This year, the Legislature faces the daunting task of satisfying the state Supreme Court, which said in its 2012 McCleary decision that the state was failing to fund public K-12 education. Funding K-12 education should not come at the expense of the important bookends of education, which enjoy no such mandate: early learning and higher education.
While the Legislature grapples with increasing funding to K-12 education in a way that actually improves outcomes for students, lawmakers have two important goals when it comes to higher education. First, budgets for the state’s community colleges and universities should see at least modest increases. Second, lawmakers should try to keep college as affordable as possible.
During the 2013-2015 budget cycle, the Legislature put $3.1 billion into higher education, or 9 percent of $33.8 billion in total spending. At least that proportion should continue — as revenues increase.
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The state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council’s most recent estimate projects that revenues in the next biennium will grow to $37 billion.
Advocates and agencies, such as the Washington Student Achievement Council, argue that the state should prioritize reducing the burden of paying for college.
Lawmakers kept tuition flat during the past two years. A tuition freeze helps students and families, but leaves institutions short as they try to keep up with rising costs. This year, they are facing the public-employee salary increase requirement that Gov. Jay Inslee negotiated with the state’s public-employees union. If that stands, the Legislature should cover the increase.
University administrators requested about $200 million in the next biennium to cover extending the tuition freeze. State Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the only way to make a tuition freeze or cut work is for the state to backfill revenues, but the amount is still up for negotiation.
In addition to freezing or lowering tuition, another worthy option for improving college affordability is to increase funding for financial-aid programs, such as the State Need Grant. That program helps more than 70,000 low-income students earn degrees, but stiffs more than 30,000 other students who are eligible.
The Washington Student Achievement Council recommends increasing funding by $48 million from 2015-2017. That would fund 8,000 more students.
That’s a laudable goal, as the state continues to recover from the recession, but many demands are competing for limited dollars.
Still, higher education is one investment that brings returns for years to come.